Art critique

Some first-year orientation leaders criticize community action orientation curriculum

In a year with a particularly high number of Community Action participants, many students expressed concerns about the orientation program. For some, the supposedly service-oriented opportunity fell short of its stated mission – and students said they left feeling dissatisfied.

Community Action is one of three required small group orientation experiences, organized by the Pace Center for Civil Engagement. With the Class of 2026 making up the largest freshman class in University, CA history, it has seen an increase from about 500 freshman attendees last year to 698 this year.

On August 28, ten CA groups traveled to Princeton-Blairstown Center (PBC) as part of their orientation, bearing on the theme of education. But the trip turned out to be a far cry from what many in the group had expected. The frustration came to a head during a group presentation among their peers at PBC, when some members of the CA 18 group voiced concerns about the week’s lineup.

“Community Action’s title is just that – a title,” one student said in a speech co-written with other first-years, according to a recording obtained by The Daily Princetonian.

“There is something important that needs to be recognized, and if it hasn’t been recognized by us, it has certainly been recognized by those who stay in the same positions long after we’re gone,” the students added during of the presentation. “We must recognize that two hours of substandard community service is not enough to initiate legitimate change.”

Group 18 was one of 20 CA groups organized this year, each focusing on specific sub-themes within the general categories of education, sustainability and basic needs and refugee well-being. Kasey Shao ’25, Amaya Dressler ’25, and Grace Kim ’25, who served as 2022-2023 CA Fellows for the themes of education, sustainability, and basic needs, respectively, were central to the groups’ planning.

“In the past, there were 500 students in total with 6 to 7 scholarship holders. This year, the three of us were responsible for 820 students,” Shao said in an interview with the “Prince”. (Scholars supervised 698 freshmen and 113 student leaders.)

Asked about the specific student concerns about CA detailed in this report, CA program director Sara Gruppo provided a general statement:

“I am grateful when students and partners can openly and honestly share their experiences,” Gruppo wrote in an email. “In Community Action, we recognize when we fall short of our goals, celebrate when we do, and grow ever closer together from both experiences. We appreciate feedback from CA leaders and participants. and we welcome continuing the conversation.”

From June to the start of orientation in late August, CA Fellows were responsible for planning virtually every aspect of CA – researching their themes, finding community partners, and planning housing and transportation to off-campus sites – planning 20 hours each.

Throughout, they said they were guided by a commitment to CA’s multi-faceted goals. As Shao said, “CA is supposed to provide a wonderful experience, orient [first-years] to the Princeton community and create a community in themselves.

“There was a push and pull between the coordination service and the community connection,” Dressler added. “The goal was also to ‘stick and bond’ them with their peers.”

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Abraham Jacobs ’26, a member of Group 18, told the “Prince” that of the 10 CA groups at PBC, only two have left the Center to engage with community partners.

Fourteen students in Group 18, whose subtopic in the Education category was “Leadership Through Mentoring,” took a charter bus from Blairstown, NJ to Trenton, a two-and-a-half-hour trip. Half the group visited Anchor House, which hosts a transitional living program for at-risk youth in Trenton, while the other half visited the organization’s pantry.

“They asked us to come by and see if there was any expired food and organize it,” Genevieve Shutt ’26 said. “There were a lot of sanitary and hygiene products, but not a lot of food. And a lot of the food was expired but we were told not to throw it away as they couldn’t help but lose it.

Eshaan Govil ’26 said he perceived the group’s impact at Anchor House to be very minimal. “We thought with the cost of the bus, [and] if we had just given that money to Anchor House it would have been so much more helpful,” he said.

Some group members who stayed at Anchor House said they felt they were inconveniencing the Anchor House staff.

“We go inside and say, ‘What do you want us to do?’ They think for a while and invent a closet. We went into that closet and it was already organized for the most part,” Jacobs said. “So after trying to help with that, we go back and end up interrupting a conversation with an at-risk teenager. We were then told to pull some weeds – we couldn’t find any.

“At one point, after asking for the third time what chores we could do and interrupting, we look at each other and think ‘we should leave,'” Jacobs added.

Paul-Louis Biondi ’24, one of the group’s two CA leaders, felt the same: “I think we’ve been more of a burden than a help.

During CA leadership training, Biondi was told that the curriculum was about engaging in enlightened service.

“The way I understood CA is that we would work with partners and be knowledgeable in communities and really try to actively engage in a productive way,” they said.

In practice, however, Biondi said they felt the experience didn’t actually engage students in community service.

“It was like a progressive service model without ever really learning or trying to put that community ahead of your own desires,” they said. “It honestly felt like it was for the optics more than anything.”

Other CA groups took issue with the extent of their service work, and several students echoed Biondi’s sentiments that the orientation program resembled “optics.” Members of CA Groups 1-3, in the Arts of Education sub-theme, visited Trenton Central High School where they were greeted with cameras and a performance by the high school orchestra.

As Princeton students were having lunch with high schoolers, a camera crew began filming their interactions, the students said. Community action program coordinator Alex Tubridy said in an interview with the ‘Prince’ that the film crew was organized by Trenton Central.

Students also raised concerns about inclusion in acts of service. While the service aspect of the trip involved performing with the group of high school students, only about eight of the 40 AC members could play an instrument and brought one with them, according to Beth Villaruz ’24, a CA leader.

“The rest of us watched,” Villaruz said. “Overall, there were few opportunities to do service.”

CA Fellows attributed some of the challenges of CA coordination to its inherent unpredictability.

“One thing I realized was that not everything would be under our control,” said Kim, one of the fellows.

Ten Sustainability topic groups were sent to the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) for their CA experience. In preparation for returning to campus, one of the three buses broke down. As a result, two groups were only able to leave PEEC four hours after being told they would.

As the group’s first years worried about missing upcoming orientation events on campus, CA chief Seth Kahn ’25 said he felt reassured by the response from Pace Center management.

“We were in constant communication with the command center on campus,” he said. “CA management handled the situation well. »

Pace Center management said it hopes this year will be an improvement over the past two years, when orientation programs were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The students wanted to come back in person,” Tubridy said. “Ultimately, this program is driven by students and their feedback.”

Despite their disappointment with their CA experience, the members of Group 18 ultimately say they are grateful to have got to know their peers through this experience.

“I think it really bonded us because we found, even in [our disagreements]we figured out where [each other is] coming,” Govil said.

Eden Teshome is an associate podcast editor at The Prince. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @edteshome.